Ladies, Start Your Engines

Lady Mechanics trainees work on an engine. Photo courtesy Lady Mechanic Initiative


Women are two-thirds of the world’s labor force, yet they only earn 10 percent of the income. Imagine how the world’s economic engines would hum if two thirds of women earned two thirds of the income.

For 25 years, Global Fund for Women has worked to reverse history by investing in women entrepreneurs. As a result, over 20,000 women around the world now have the business skills to run successful enterprises, but it has not always been a smooth ride.

For women business leaders in countries like Nepal and Nigeria, just being a female leader can be dangerous. Add traditional cultural practices meant to keep them financially bound to their male counterparts and you can understand why failure rates for women are higher in those countries. Yet, women continue to beat the odds and are shattering stereotypes along the way.

Take Nepal’s first cab service run exclusively by women. Back in 2002, Sangita Nirola started Swati to address two unmet needs: women in Kathmandu did not feel safe riding in taxis with male drivers and employment options for women were low-paying jobs like cooking and tailoring, locking them into a cycle of poverty.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. More than half of Nepalese women report experiencing some form of violence, according to the Center for Research on Environment Health and Population Activities in Nepal. Contributing factors include high illiteracy, early marriage, and lack of women in decision-making roles.

Sangita and her colleagues started a driving school for women. With their Global Fund grants, they purchased taxicabs and uniforms for the drivers, rented the garage space, and paid maintenance fees for the cabs.

“Swati is taking a sector approach and looking at the transportation industry, where women have been excluded, and coming up with ways for women to get jobs in those industries,” said Leila Hessini, Global Fund board chair. “They are gaining skills and challenging stereotypes. That opens doors for everybody.”

“A Global Fund grant... gives [an organization] even more motivation to focus on their mission and go after other funding.” Mary Beth Salerno \\ Global Fund Donor and Former President of American Express Foundation

The women of Swati believe that when women establish their own business they become independent and empowered. Making sure every woman receives comprehensive leadership training, the Lady Driver Training Program offers courses on Nepal’s thriving tourist industry, self-defense techniques, mechanics, and business. Once up and running Swati leveraged its Global Fund support to attract major funders like USAID.

“A Global Fund grant doesn’t just help an organization financially,” said Mary Beth Salerno, longtime Global Fund donor and former President of American Express Foundation. “It gives them even more motivation to focus on their mission and go after other funding.”

If a Nepalese woman driving a cab was revolutionary; then a female auto mechanic in Nigeria would have been earth shattering. That’s until The Lady Mechanics drove into town.

Started to promote women’s economic empowerment and self-reliance, The Lady Mechanics Initiative is growing by leaps and bounds. From rigorous technical and business management training, to advocacy campaigns for equal pay and gender equality education, more than 350 women mechanics have graduated from the program.

“I will say to you that there is no automobile company in Nigeria that does not have female mechanics, and they got all these girls from me,” Sandra Aguebor-Ekperouh, founder of The Lady Mechanics Initiative, told National Public Radio in 2013. “So it’s spreading out like a wildfire, gradually, and also empowering other women. And we don’t intend to even stop in Nigeria.”

With multiple grants from Global Fund, the organization supports graduates as they start their mobile garages and find jobs in the industry. But the story doesn’t end there. Women of Swati and Lady Mechanics are paying it forward and it’s paying off.

“I want to train other girls. I want to build up this country. One more year, and I’ll have my own garage,” 25-year-old Elizabeth Ekwem told NPR. “Look, my hands are dirty. I love it... It’s the best job in the world.”

Photo courtesy Lady Mechanic Initiative